The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

December 15, 2013 at 16:19 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Horror) (, , , )

TheOceanAtTheEndOfTheLane

8/10

8/10

The harshest and truest criticism that ought to be levelled at this book, is that it is a very good fairy tale. Few recent books can honestly be said to have made no mistakes, no one foot placed wrong; and yet be so palpably missing something. There are really very few causes for complaint. Gaiman is certainly over-fond of commas, and sprinkles them with a vexing prodigality through his book. The story recalls in a dim sort of way the work of Susanna Clarke (which is completely unsurprising, considering the connection between the two authors) but is entirely enterprising and thoroughly original.

It is, as noted above, a very good fairy tale. That ought to be enough, but any reader finishing this story will not be able to escape the feeling that this novel might easily have been seminal. It could have been Gaiman’s best, and the best fantasy in a decade, and a flawless work that would have other writers gnawing their own hair in envy. Instead, it is just very good.

Perhaps this has something to do with its haphazard and unintentional inception. By all accounts, Gaiman intended to write a short unpublished story, then a short published story, then a novella, then a full novel. As it is, it tallies up to be a rather brief novel, and it might be that there are details that could have been eased out onto unspoiled pages, deeper plots, deeper characters, a fuller tale.

“Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.”

-The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Again, it must be emphasised: this is not a case of a story feeling half-baked, or of questions left unanswered, or of a rushed plot stapled together to meet a publisher’s deadline. This story is complete, and it is very good. Another way of looking at it might be the fierce regimentation of the various adventures and plots in the story. There is the funereal visit at the beginning, for instance. It arrives, there are some pleasing interior monologues, and once that part of the story is over the viewpoint and the flavour shift abruptly. Later, there is the crisis with Ursula and the Roald Dahlian imprisonment within one’s home–which is terrifically written and both thrilling, and tense and suspenseful–which is concluded, resolved, and finished.

Gaiman isolates these separate incidents from each other, and once one crisis or adventure or stream of thought is concluded, it does not really arise again. There is nothing to be said against his narration. His voice is crisp and clean, and it is melancholic without being morbid, youthful without being juvenile, dark without despondence. It seems rather that he might have returned to the draft a few times, and out of the neatly planted and segmented seeds of a story, cultivated a rich and flowing garden of an epic.

This is a story that readers will appreciate and remember, but not for all that long. It is not a story to change lives or inspire deep and permanent longing and wistful love, but it is a story that while it lasts is captivating.

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The Ordinary Knight and The Invisible Princess, by H.L. Burke

September 8, 2013 at 15:58 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Romantic Fiction) (, , , )

OrdinaryKnight

7/10

7/10

The damnable thing about the publishing industry is that it is so terribly big. An unassailable bulwark against the flotsam and jetsam spewed up by the infinite depths of would-be writers, with the carefully-patrolled floodgates channelling the cream that has risen to the top of this morass into the grateful lap of the discerning reader. Of course, it goes without saying that dreadful nonsense and tiresome rubbish end up slipping past to join the real literature; but it is a truth seldom acknowledged that the faceless might of the publishing industry really has no ready way to capture the work of truly excellent authors who find themselves without established names or careers.

The Ordinary Knight is a self-published fantasy romance; a description liable to turn absolutely no heads and several stomachs. Surprisingly, it is absolutely terrific. Competently written and finely paced, it is a fairytale adventure whose only fault is its brevity, and a sweetly imagined fantasy world that is impressionistic and pristine. There is little in the story that is subtle or particularly subversive: no neckbreaking plot twists or philosophical challenges. Only a fine old-fashioned adventure tale, with echoes of the inimitable Kate DiCamillo, and a timeless quality such as only the best fantasy authors can manage, whose work appeals both to its intended childhood demographic, and also to adults grown wistful.

“‘Percy, I can’t go back. The fairies know how to get through the doors now. The tower isn’t safe anymore…I barely escaped.'”

-The Ordinary Knight

The story is driven far more by its characters than by exposition or a detailed description of the fantastic world in which they dwell, but there are tantalising glimpses of a sugarplum world that begs to be explored in further depth. Burke can be lavish in her set-pieces and is as obvious as a Roald Dahl in where her sympathies lie: the heroes are without exception paragons of virtue, yet manage the trick of being likeable at the same time. The dialogue is clear and occasionally witty, and the conclusion manages to be truly epic without losing the childlike atmosphere so carefully cultivated throughout.

The glowing reception that The Ordinary Knight so richly deserves is offset and dimmed slightly by the second loosely-related story, The Invisible Princess. Much of the magic is lost in the sequel, and the pathos is laid on with a trowel, as moonstruck lovers bemoan in dreadful melodrama how utterly and hopelessly they yearn for each other. There is little fantastical, and almost no development, and the least said about it the better. It might be a perfectly acceptable straight romance novel, but it is emphatically not on the same level as its prequel, either in genre or in professionalism.

Nevertheless, this lapse is scarcely an excuse to smear the first of the two books. Read the first by all means, and proceed with the second only if you like that sort of thing. But for The Ordinary Knight to while away its days as just another unread vanity publication would be a travesty. An excellent book, a surprise success, and hopefully indicative of the sort of thing to come from this marvellously talented writer.

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Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

June 1, 2013 at 09:19 (Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Horror, Literature) (, , )

Frankenstein

7/10

7/10

The chief and noticeable feature in Frankenstein is the peculiarly direct route that Shelley takes from the beginning to the end. With the possible exception of the brief Shetland adventure, both the eponymous doctor and his creation turn neither to the left nor to the right on their individual paths; but pursue each other without hindrance or pause from one fixed point to the next.

The monster, therefore, sets its mind upon one thing, which is sought until it is achieved or until it is forever out of reach. The doctor, likewise. This straight highway of a narrative leads to very few surprises for the reader, and the impending doom of tragedy is lessened by its visibility–and simultaneously heightened by its inevitability. For this reason above others, the book has a tendency to drag its feet. Any attempt by Shelley to create suspense is largely futile–and she seems to recognise this, and aims at pathos rather than tension.

” I do not ever remember to have trembled at a tale of superstition or to have feared the apparition of a spirit. Darkness had no effect upon my fancy, and a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, from being the seat of beauty and strength, had become food for the worm.”

-Frankenstein

Stylistically, Frankenstein is not a displeasing work. For all its gothic legacy, it reads generally like any of its contemporary works of literature, with the only distinction being that the tragedies mourned and the victories celebrated have a supernatural patina to them. It is not a very atmospheric book, nor is the monstrous horror of the grinning demoniac particularly prominent. A lengthy monologue by the creature is presented in much the same way it would have been had its narrator been a normal human, and besides a few physical descriptions of his diabolical aspect, the creature is remarkably unremarkable.

This is a book with a very strong concept, whose author under no circumstances allows the story to get in the way of that concept. It is not possible to find any grave flaws with the writing, but it is almost as difficult to find a great deal of beauty in it. The book is unlikely to conjure up any very strong emotions in its readers, and must rely instead on its competency and its novelty. This might well be a classic book, but it perhaps deserves to be called good literature, not great.

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The Children of Hurin, by J.R.R. Tolkien

May 5, 2013 at 17:51 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , , )

ChildrenOfHurin

9/10

9/10

In examining The Children of Hurin, the first question will be, “Is it any good?” while the second question will be, “Is there anything new or unique here?”

The answer to both of these questions is not all that simple. The Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion from which this story is assembled are both notorious for being difficult and labyrinthine tomes reserved exclusively for people who don’t get invited to parties. They are both very, very good, which answers the first question somewhat. Any reader who has gone through either one of those books will not find anything particularly surprising in The Children of Hurin, which answers the second question.

But there is something very valuable and very new in these pages. Christopher Tolkien (who edited together these fragments) has long been a target of scornful dismissal by many fans of his father’s work, but it is remarkable how seamlessly he has managed to collate the pieces of Hurin’s tragedy from the disparate sources available to him, and come out with something very much approximating literature.

The grandiose style that has been mistaken for unwieldiness by many readers of Tolkien’s miscellaney has been sanded and polished, and in the process of cutting Hurin’s family out from their tangled web of thousands of years of history there is much that has been either abbreviated or removed entirely. In fact, the peculiar thing about this book is that the very act of making it ‘more readable’ and ‘more accessible’ has in fact denuded it of helpful context for many readers unaware of the arcane details of Tolkien’s legends. Those deeply intimate with the history of the Noldor and Thangorodrim will find a clear and thrilling edition of a familiar story; those who have only read The Lord of the Rings will still be faced with the constant stumbling blocks of how this story fits in with the world they know. It is therefore interesting that the simplification of the books has consequently made the story more inviting for those who are already comfortable with the original versions.

“‘The shadow of my purpose lies upon Arda, and all that is in it bends slowly and surely to my will. But upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair.'”

-The Children of Hurin

The most noticeable artefact from The Silmarillion stylistically speaking, is the rather grim absence of levity or mirth. This is a much harder story than Tolkien’s more famous works, and while that does not make it worse at all, it does make it different, and it will doubtless unsettle many readers. This setting also allowed Tolkien to explore more adult themes, and his characters here are much more driven by fear and by jealousy, by pride and by vengeance and by honour. Turin and Morwen, Beleg and Glaurung, are much more human and much less fantastical than the array of hobbits and men seen elsewhere; which is again a comment, and neither criticism nor praise. There is some difficulty in finding the focus of the story–for the grand millennial struggle against Morgoth is a background theme, and incidental to the plot. But in that, the smaller details and choices assume a wider significance than in the original editions, and a warmth which is difficult to set upon initially is brought out.

It is incredibly difficult to consider this book apart from the other forms in which it has already been published. Most readers who come across it will come across it because of their admiration for these other works. But those others who will have to painstakingly arrange the context (or do away with it entirely) will find a bitter but enticing fantasy story, expertly written and without any of the baggy and painful luggage that so much modern fantasy is encumbered with. Surprisingly satisfying to read, and one that even committed Tolkien-devotees might find themselves reaching for more often than they think.

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The Once and Future King, by T.H. White

September 29, 2012 at 14:31 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literature, Magic Realism, Mediocre Books) (, , , , )

6/10

An infuriating and disjointed recasting of the Arthur legend, yet one that has its own wisdom and its own profundity. The four books that make up The Once and Future King are strikingly different from each other, and narrative threads are picked up and dropped without any regard for the sanity of the reader. T.H. White has a habit of telling a character’s story avidly and with deep interest for a hundred pages, and then offhandedly remarking that so-and-so was killed in such-and-such an indistinguished manner. He jarringly veers between whimsical lyricism and darkly savage tragicomedy without warning, and he has a habit of inserting lengthy lists and parades of commas quite purposefully and utterly shamelessly into his prose, obfuscating honest attempts to snuggle into his story.

“It is generally the trusting and optimistic people who can afford to retreat. The loveless and faithless ones are compelled by their pessimism to attack.

-The Once and Future King

This is one of those books whose excellence is found principally in single-line quotations in which White demonstrates his keen intellect and fascinating insight, and also in the grand scope of tragedy as a whole. It is not a book that is enjoyable to read as a story, nor is it easy. Irrelevant tangents abound, crucial characters slip in and out of view, and White seems much more interested in slipping in philosophic observations than in structuring a novel.

Readers of fantasy looking for a comfortable world of sugarspun hamlets and parochial squires had better look elsewhere. Likewise, fantasy readers searching for dragons and wizards and knightly quests will not find satisfaction here. This is a grown-up fantasy book, which is to say it is bleak and merciless, and contains jewels of cleverness (though not always wisdom) sprinkled sparingly throughout. There are passages which show off T.H. White as a master writer, and passages which show him off as needlessly convoluted, or stylistically hamstrung. Appreciate it for its merits, and by all means underline passages; but to devote oneself to this book–to absolutely fall in love with it–seems to be a difficult task indeed.

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Lord Darcy, by Randall Garrett

July 28, 2012 at 11:46 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Mystery) (, , , )

9/10

It might well be suspected that many of the readers who find their way to this forgotten compendium traced from the pages of Analog are attracted to Lord Darcy principally (or solely) because of the dazzling lure that is Garrett’s deeply intriguing setting. Followers of The Fourth Person will realise that this reviewer seldom discusses the plots or settings of any books, save in the most general terms, or when they are particularly fascinating. The universe in which Garrett chooses to write is based in an alternate timeline, but also in an alternate scienceline. The two chief conceits are the domination of the western hemisphere by the Plantaganet dynasty, and the replacement of science with magic. Successful (and unsuccessful) books have been written in alternate timelines; and of course magic is a common trope invoked by science fiction and fantasy writers (although the excellently thought out relationship between magic and science in Lord Darcy is of the best and finest sort, very much like Susanna Clarke‘s peerless debut novel).

“‘According to the chief sorcerer at the Weather Office, your lordship, it isn’t due to break up until five minutes after five o’clock in the morning.'”

-Lord Darcy

Randall Garrett, however, manages to astound readers from the very outset by combining two interesting and piquing scenarios in a deucedly bold and daring array. He then crowns his well-baited hook with his pièce de résistance, and writes a story that would have been quite appealing and readable even outside of his exotic settings. Popular alternate history writers like Harry Turtledove or Robert Harris tend to fall apart when they spend so much effort crafting intricate “what if” scenarios that they forget to tell a good story; when they drag on for entire fictional eras and epochs and leave only the outline of their conceit, without anything to remember it by.

Garrett is pleasingly subtle, and while readers might have cause to complain that they are left with an unsatisfactory level of closure as to the vile machinations of the wicked Casimir, or without adequate exposition of the centuries of Plantaganet rule, they will be unable to complain that they have been ill-entertained. His mysteries are fun, and make no pretentions of aspiring to serious literature.He presents instead droll and exciting mystery stories: last of which is a charming recasting–or tribute–or mockery (it is sometimes difficult to tell) of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

“‘If either of you moves,’ said Lord Darcy calmly, ‘I will shoot him through the brain. Get your hands off those blade hilts and don’t move otherwise.'”

-Lord Darcy

Brief and simple as they are, his stories are written with considerable skill and due attention, and the temptation to make every crime either a deus ex machina with magical means and magical solutions is well avoided. Indeed, he ought to be doubly commended for his meandering parallels between his magical forensics and realistic early twentieth century forensics: ne’er the twain meet, and often they diverge, but there is always some measure of nearness between his fiction and our fact. This is a book in which everything good about it is at a slight distance, as it were. Never is his reader treated (or consigned) to an over-near examination of his history, his magic, or the writer’s own slightly smug cleverness. It has been said that nothing can spoil a story like too much exposition, and Garrett bears this up magnificently, providing us with a peripheral glimpse of an amazing world, and whisking it away while leaving that rarest of things: a fully satisfied reader yearning for more.

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The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson

July 7, 2012 at 13:24 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, War and Politics) (, , , )

9/10

This book was particularly difficult to rate. There are parts of it which are exciting, original and lively; expertly-written fantasy and fascinating characters with penetrating depths to their vivid personalities. However, the book does have some serious problems to it.

It is a very slow book, and much longer than it needs to be. Like other novels setting up long, multi-volume sagas, Sanderson can be excused in part for both the claudicant start and for the length, but he fails to write much more than an introduction in a thousand pages. There are two main story arcs, but neither of them are finished at all, and neither of them have nearly enough closure to justify the stilted pace of the story.

“According to legend, the Shardblades were first carried by the Knights Radiant uncounted ages ago. Gifts of their god, granted to allow them to fight horrors of rock and flame, dozens of feet tall, foes whose eyes burned with hatred. The Voidbringers.”

-The Way of Kings

Many of Sanderson’s action-oriented passages feel strongly like descriptions of the mechanics of a video game. Notable examples include his (admittedly deeply interesting) shardbinding magic, or the manner in which characters draw stormlight from spheres. The shardplate (a rare and highly-sought suit of regenerating armour, whose pieces can only be shattered by powerful weapons striking the same plates repeatedly) is one of the more awkward examples. This is a strange and distracting feature in the book. Perhaps in the future this influence from video games (and particularly game mechanics) will find its way into more books and become expected. Here it feels out of place, which is a shame, as these aspects of the story are central to the plot.

Sanderson should be commended for his fluent writing and easy style, and also for his creativity and vision in moulding a detailed and rich world without at any point reverting to dry or encyclopaedic prose. His heroes and villains alike are delightful (if not particularly complex) and he balances a clever line between being willing to make tragic sacrifices and avoiding cheap pathos at the expense of a high and unnecessary body count.

“‘Tell them,’ Kaladin continued, voice firmer, ‘that it won’t end here. Tell them I chose not to take my own life, and so there’s no way in Damnation I’m going to give it up to Sadeas.'”

-The Way of Kings

He initially has a noticeable problem with introducing his characters solely through narration: this character, he tells us, is known for being incredibly witty and intelligent. This character is brave and noble. For the reader, there is no incentive to believe him, and it takes a while before he settles down and actually demonstrates his characters’ attributes rather than explain them. He is also a master of the anticlimax: several of the painstaking reveals at the end of the book are released with a fanfare of trumpets, only to fall disappointingly flat. Several of his more intriguing mysteries are explained in an offhand way, and are considerably less exciting than he initially promises.

For readers of modern fantasy, this book is one of the freshest and most exciting in years. It compares very favourably with Patrick Rothfuss’ recent series, in length, complexity and creativity. The Way of Kings ends up with a more coherent, a more memorable, and a more vibrant plot, with a clearer sense of direction than Rothfuss. There are obvious teething problems that will hopefully be addressed in future volumes, and the book could easily have been some three hundred pages shorter without sacrificing content or depth. But it is easy to digest and an effective and exciting entry to a series that will hopefully go from strength to strength. It is difficult not to forgive its inadequacies, and readers are guaranteed satisfaction.

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Great Apes, by Will Self

June 6, 2012 at 06:51 (Book Reviews, Comedy, Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Poorly Rated Books, Romantic Fiction) (, , )

3/10

Will Self is a frighteningly intelligent man who takes a perverse delight in doing disgusting things to beautiful words. Great Apes is one of those books that begins with a clever or original idea (although honestly, not all that original) and works behind it as under a mask to make the initial premise the unwilling slave of a certain conceit of style, or flavour. This book is all atmosphere and very little substance, and all commentary and very little story. It is difficult to tell whether Will Self is unutterably pleased with himself for being so blamed clever all the time, or if he is adopting such a persona in order to laugh at it. It is not really very important which.

The central idea is that human beings are as noble and arrogant as any batch of greasy apes happen to be; and again and again this is piled on with a trowel in much the same way as Orson Scott Card in Lovelock. There is not much more than this, and what might have been an excellent display of Self’s ample wit and silver tongue is instead contorted into a tiresome sneer at humanity.

“Then their tongues slid over and under, pink shrews blindly questing.”

-Great Apes

As might be expected, Will Self writes with a deucedly elegant pen, and weighs and portions his words like an apothecary, or a lover, dosing the reader meticulously with impeccably crafted language, placing each jot and tittle with immaculate care: and using them to paint an ugly and cheap picture of cartoonish horror. There lies the greatest disappointment with this book. It might have been excellent. Instead, it is like the genius in the class who insists on clowning around in every lesson, turning in every assignment late, and with more of an eye towards upsetting the teacher than proving his worth.

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The Pearls of Lutra, by Brian Jacques

May 20, 2012 at 18:40 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , )

9/10

In this excellent novel Brian Jacques served up a very different flavour of Redwall book, demonstrating that the winning formula he devised was robust enough to experiment with. Gone is the usual vermin horde pressing hungrily around the sandstone abbey walls; and instead piracy, desertion, tropical tyrants, and exotic heroes and villains alike. At the same time, The Pearls of Lutra maintains enough of Redwall’s classic hallmarks, with one of Jacques’ best-written riddle quests, his best female protagonist since Mariel, and a truly excellent pair of buddy-adventurers in Clecky and Gerul.

“Far across the heaving deeps of restless ocean, some say even beyond the place where the sun sinks in the west, there lies the Isle of Sampetra…rotten as a flyblown carcass…haven to the flotsam of the high seas.”

-The Pearls of Lutra

Brian Jacques has always been willing to sacrifice even beloved characters on the altar of emotive storytelling (some extreme examples include Martin the Warrior and The Outcast of Redwall), and without needlessly elaborating,The Pearls of Lutra contains some of his thickest pathos of all, with some parts truly harrowing.

There is something fresh in the storytelling that has only a little to do with the novelty of the creatures and locations in this book, and something more akin to the swashbuckling adventures of Treasure Island or The Three Musketeers; a feeling that Jacques is perhaps for the first time writing really good children’s literature. There is a real sense of setting off into the unknown, and the freedom and danger that entails. This book demonstrates the best of Brian Jacques, without necessarily seeming like Brian Jacques.

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Snuff, by Terry Pratchett

April 18, 2012 at 18:30 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Comedy, Fantasy, Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , )

6/10

Sam Vimes is one of Pratchett’s best and most enduring characters, starring in more Discworld books than even Rincewind. He tends to embody Pratchett’s view of an ideal hero (particularly in his constant struggles against his own darkness, and his rigid adherance to the rule of law), and if ever he falls, it is not very far and not for very long. It must be acknowledged that Sam Vimes is easily Pratchett’s most likeable character. Combined, these traits make this book instantly readable, but also rather predictable. It is hardly likely that Terry Pratchett will choose to have his pristine hero watch his wife or son die, or lose his fortune or his reputation, any more than Ankh Morpork will be destroyed or Vetinari will be permanently unseated. Such are the hazards of writing a forty-book series. Eventually, suspense wanes.

There is a fair amount of dallying back-and-forth that goes on in Snuff, which might lead some to suspect that the story has been needlessly padded out. Vimes spends an unwarranted amount of time bouncing between his manorial estate, the local tavern, the goblin den and the local gaol. In any other mystery story (most of the Watch stories boil down to mysteries sooner or later) this would be time well spent in digging through the surprising secrets and scandalous miscellania of the extended cast, as well as building up the main characters. This doesn’t really happen.

“He would want Vimes to know who was killing him. Vimes, Vimes realised, knew killers too well for his own peace of mind.”

-Snuff

Vimes has been well-explored in several other books, and it would be unfair to say that his character is neglected in Snuff. But after reading this book, Discworld aficionados will not have glimpsed much more about Sybil, or Young Sam, or Vetinari, or even Lord Rust or Willikins. Instead of meaningful exposition, Pratchett serves up occasional cameo glimpses of a handful of characters who serve little purpose other than as placation for fans. These diversions are seldom necessary and always distracting, and break up the pace of this book terribly. The entire subplot in Ankh Morpork is entirely unnecessary, and is the worst example of this habit. Snuff is spread too thinly and insubstantially across too wide an area, and while it is a charming adventure story for Sam Vimes, it does not contain anywhere near the depth, the attention to detail, or the sophistication of Pratchett’s best works.

The writing is generally good, but the hazards of writing interior monologues for characters written in the third person catches up with Pratchett from time to time, resulting in some peculiar sentence structures and clumsy descriptions. It is sad to say, but an enduring epitaph to the Discworld series might be that it all began to sound the same. There is the distinct feeling of a slightly frustrated author who is not quite sure how to clearly communicate what he wants to say. Fans of Terry Pratchett will forgive this instantly, but for newer readers the verdict will be the same as it has been for the last half-dozen novels: don’t start with this one. He writes much better than this.

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